In a 2.5-year immunotoxicological study, two groups of captive harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) were fed herring from the heavily polluted Baltic Sea or from the relatively uncontaminated Atlantic Ocean. Blood samples were collected at regular intervals, and functional immunological parameters were monitored. T cell mitogen and mixed lymphocyte-induced proliferative responses of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) obtained from seals fed Baltic herring were significantly reduced over the course of experiment. Upon immunization with rabies virus antigen (RV) and tetanus toxoid (TT), specific proliferative responses of PBMC from the seals fed Baltic herring were also significantly reduced. Impairment of T cell-mediated immune responses became especially apparent during the second year on the respective diets, and correlated significantly to 2,3,7,8-tetrachloro-dibenzo-p-dioxin toxic equivalent levels in blubber biopsies taken from the seals after 2 years on the respective diets. Humoral immune responses, including lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-induced lymphoproliferative responses, in vitro immunoglobulin production by PBMC, as well as RV-, TT-and poliovirus-specific serum antibody responses following immunization, remained largely unaffected. We conclude that suppression of the cellular immune response in the seals fed Baltic herring was induced by the chronic exposure to immunotoxic environmental contaminants accumulated through the food chain. Since cellular immune responses are known to be of crucial importance in the clearance of morbillivirus infections, these results suggest that environmental pollution-related immunosuppression may have contributed to the severity and extent of recent morbillivirus-related mass mortalities among marine mammals.

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Clinical and Experimental Immunology
Erasmus MC: University Medical Center Rotterdam

de Swart, R., Ross, P., Timmerman, H., Vos, H., Reijnders, P. J. H., Vos, J., & Osterhaus, A. (1995). Impaired cellular immune response in harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) feeding on environmentally contaminated herring. Clinical and Experimental Immunology, 101, 480–487. Retrieved from